Nothing demonstrates the Prime Minister’s bunker mentality better than the new Downing Street Brexit Rebuttal Unit. Theresa May has spent two years locked away with a small group of civil servants “negotiating” the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. The rest of her Cabinet has not been involved. Having put in so much effort, she is determined to get it approved by Parliament, however disastrous the consequences. She has set up a unit to rebut any criticisms on the Downing Street website. Here are some examples.
A Very Bad Deal
The Withdrawal Agreement is a very bad deal for the UK. It was drafted by European Commission lawyers and it appears that the only role of UK “negotiators” was to raise objections to the proposed text in the different drafts. The result, if this Agreement is approved by Parliament, will be to permanently trap the UK as a satellite of the European Union: with no right to vote on or veto laws passed by the European Parliament that we will then have to obey, and no right to unilaterally exit from the Treaty that ratifies the Agreement.
The European Commission made clear at the beginning of the “negotiations” that they would only agree to a bad deal that was worse than continued membership of the EU. All the other leaders of the remaining 27 Member States know that this is a bad deal for us – which is why they all eagerly signed it on 25 November 2018. All our friends and allies abroad know it too. Everyone else in the UK knows it’s a very bad deal, including most of her Cabinet and party.
The Downing Street Bunker
The only person on this planet who still thinks this is a good deal – indeed the only deal – is Theresa May herself. The striking evidence for this comes from the Downing Street Brexit Rebuttal Unit which has recently started a blog to refute criticisms of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Those whom it attacks include Martin Howe QC, chair of Lawyers for Britain, Graeme Leach, a member of Economists for Free Trade, Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, and Major General Julian Thompson, the Falklands War veteran.
Martin Howe makes a number of significant points.
The Law and the Backstop
One relates to the backstop: “Once the Protocol [relating to the Irish backstop] is in force, the UK cannot leave it except by ‘joint’ decision of the UK and the EU. This gives the EU a right of veto over the UK’s exit. In agreeing to this clause, the government has caved in over seeking a right to leave”.
This is undoubtedly true and the Prime Minister knows this because her own Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, has told her that: “The Protocol would endure indefinitely” (EU Exit: Legal position on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Legal Effect of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland). The House of Commons EU Legislation Team also confirms this (The Withdrawal Agreement: Legal and Governance Aspects).
Yet the Brexit Rebuttal Unit insists that “The Protocol is explicit in the legal text that it is intended to be a temporary arrangement. The Withdrawal Agreement establishes a binding obligation on both the UK and the EU to use their best endeavours to agree a future relationship which would supersede the backstop by December 2020”.
But as Mr. Howe points out: “an obligation ‘to use best endeavours to agree’ could [not] be enforced by arbitration. An obligation on two parties to agree with each other is not justiciable because it is not possible for a judge or arbitrator to pin the blame on one party or the other if they cannot reach an agreement. The EU could carry on proposing terms which are unacceptable to the UK and/or spin out these complicated negotiations for years without it being possible to demonstrate that the EU is in breach of any obligation of best endeavours”.
To back this up, the Irish Ambassador has made absolutely clear in a letter to The Spectator on 1 December 2018 that Ireland will always exercise the veto on the EU’s behalf since it will never accept that “existing technology and administrative facilitation can remove the need for any border infrastructure or controls”. Further, at the European Council meeting on 13-14 December 2018, the EU has also made it clear that it would not change the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and would only add non-binding “clarifications”.
The ‘Divorce Bill’
Mr Howe continues that we are “throwing away in advance our two strongest negotiation cards: EU budget payments of £39 billion and the future access to our market for EU goods”.
The Brexit Rebuttal Unit’s response is that “This agreement confirms that as we leave the EU the days of sending vast payments to the EU are coming to an end. The financial settlement reflects a fair settlement of our rights and obligations as a departing member of the EU. It is estimated to be much lower than some of the estimates we heard – as high as £100bn and it is agreed in the spirit of our future relationship”.
The House of Lords says that the UK has “no legal obligation” to pay any exit bill. So our very first “negotiation” must have gone something like this. The EU side opens with an off-the-wall demand for a divorce bill of £100bn and our negotiating team points out that actually we owe nothing. The EU responds by saying “okay, you’ve twisted our arm, you’re really good at this, let’s split the difference and settle for £39bn”. And our brilliant team says “sure”, and then returns to London basking in the glory that it has saved the British taxpayer £60bn.
No Free Trade Deals
Graeme Leach points out that “the draft withdrawal agreement will prevent us from signing free trade deals with third-party countries – again, unless the EU agrees its own free trade deal with us, which releases us from any backstop obligations. Forget deals with the US, China, and India”.
The Brexit Rebuttal Unit’s response is that “The text of the Political Declaration on our Future Relationship makes clear that… the UK can develop our independent trade policy. Many of our partners [such as the US and Australia]…have said publicly that they look forward to signing trade agreements with us”.
But this independent trade policy will not include any trade agreements with any countries that are related to goods – only to services, procurement and investment – and these will not come into effect unless and until every Member State of the EU gives consent. As Mr Leach points out: “Some independent policy”. The US and Australia have made it very clear that they are not interested in a restricted trade deal of this kind.
A Threat to Your Security
Sir Richard Dearlove and Major General Julian Thompson argue that “The ‘deal’ surrenders British national security by subordinating UK defence forces to Military EU control”.
The Brexit Rebuttal Unit’s response is that “The deal provides a flexible framework for us to work with the EU on foreign policy and defence, including in times of crisis. It gives us an option to co-operate in these areas. It does not create an obligation to do so”.
But this not correct either. Based on evidence collected by Veterans for Britain, Steven Edginton, Director of the Politics UK YouTube channel, has discovered that: “Theresa May has signed up the UK to EU defence institutions meaning continued vast annual payments to Brussels, giving away control over major aspects of defence and foreign policy and all this has the power to undermine NATO”.
A Dangerously Naïve Prime Minister
These are just a small number of examples which show very clearly that the Prime Minister either does not understand the Withdrawal Agreement she signed in Brussels or has become completely delusional. Every claim made by Theresa May and restated by the Brexit Rebuttal Unit is false.
The PM has been trapped in the Downing Street bunker for over two years. She hasn’t trusted any of her ministers since she took sole command of the divorce bill negotiations, bypassing those notionally in charge. One-by-one they are deserting her. She is now completely isolated with only the devoted Brexit Rebuttal Unit remaining to serve up delusional propaganda. Yet, she continues to believe that she is the only person who can save Britain.
Theresa May is the most dangerously naïve Prime Minister ever to govern this country.
This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared on CommentCentral.
Professor David Blake is at Cass Business School